When Jalina told me that her second film was going to be The Illusionist, I thought she was talking about the 2006 Edward Norton vehicle that went up against The Prestige in a cinematic sleight-of-hand showdown. But, no, she was in fact talking about Sylvain Chomet‘s 2010 animated followup to The Triplets of Belleville, known in French (and here, for purposes of distinction) as L’Illusionniste.
But before the film I pulled out yet another MST3K short (if my count is right, the 14th MST3K short now shown before our films), this one titled “The Selling Wizard”, which has a lot less to do with magic and a lot more to do with…well…supermarket display freezers. Here, it’s worth a watch, if only for the Lauren Bacall Pizza Dominatrix:
But what about the feature presentation? This film, like Triplets, has basically no dialogue. It’s not really needed to get the idea across, so I guess it saves on paying the subtitlers.
The story follows the French illusionist Tatischeff, a guy who kinda has taken the easy way out for a career, if you consider that pulling a full glass of wine out of your sleeve is way simpler when you’re animated. Maybe it’s the animation thing, maybe it’s just some sort of 1950s French ennui with stage performers (because, seriously, FULL GLASS OF WINE FROM HIS SLEEVE!) but the theaters in Paris dry up and our illusionist packs up his nasty rabbit and heads off to the U.K. in search of gainful employment.
The English apparently don’t appreciate magic, either. But you know who does? A drunken Scotsman – a tad cliché, I suppose, but Scotchy hooks Tatischeff up with a gig at a recently electrified pub which Wikipedia informs me is set on the Inner Hebrides island of Iona.
The gig goes about as well as you can expect for being set in a small Scottish pub, but more important than the gig is a moment of compassion that Tatischeff exhibits towards a teenaged charwoman with eyes inexplicably close to her crown who works at the pub. Seeing that her shoes are tattered, he goes down to a local shop and spends what is probably most of his pub take to buy her a pair of new red shoes, which he gives to her in a sleight-of-hand flourish.
Shortly thereafter Tatischeff continues his wandering ways, heading off to the big lights of Edinburgh in search of another gig. Lo and behold, the chargirl (who I am assured is named Alice, not that there’s ever any dialogue establishing this), who is deeply impressed by his magic shows up on the boat. She’s a bit simple, and seems to believe that he can conjure up, well, for example, a ferry ticket for her, and being pressed into action he does manage to sleight-of-hand his own ticket into two, and he’s now got himself a hanger-on.
They take up a dingy one-bedroom apartment in the Scottish capital and Tatischeff finds a regular gig at theater with a somewhat less than enthusiastic audience. Making ends meet would never seem to be easy.
And that’s without having to support an orphan who not only seems to think you can conjure clothes out of thin air, but who is continually developing more and more expensive tastes. And why not, if your sugar daddy can just pull an Abracadabra and clothe you for free?
To keep Alice in designer clothing, Tatischeff is forced to take up some relatively demeaning (and not terribly lucrative) moonlighting, when the obvious solution should have been to go ask Alice to, I don’t know, get a job and pull her own weight around here. But instead, Tatischeff finally kicks his magic gig, sells all of his props (barring the nasty rabbit) and takes out a third mortgage on the rabbit cage to make ends meet.
But all good things must come to an end, and when Tatischeff finds out that Alice is seeing a boy on the side, he decides its time to dump her off on another sucker and he makes his plans to get out of Dodge.
He leaves Alice a passive-aggressive note, sets his rabbit free on a mountaintop, and hops a train southbound having learned his lesson. That lesson? Don’t do magic for kids, they’ll only latch on to you. So when a young boy on his train drops his stubby pencil, Tatischeff resists using his powers to replace it with a longer one. Ah, freedom! The End.
In all seriousness, it’s kind of a depressing movie. It’s hard not to feel that Tatischeff is allowing himself to be used by Alice, and while their parting is supposed to be this sort of bittersweet coming-of-age thing, it really seems like she did him dirty. On top of that, when you learn that the script was originally written by actor and director Jacques Tati as sort of a personal letter to a daughter whom he abandoned in infancy, it also seems off. “I feel bad about abandoning you in infancy, so I’m going to write a story about a father figure abandoning a teenaged daughter figure – that’ll make everything OK!” So yeah, it was a pretty good film, but definitely depressing.